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Irish Insider: Weis goes beyond mere fundamentals in year two

Kate Gales | Friday, August 25, 2006

With some players fresh out of high school and one contending for the Heisman, there is quite a range of ability on the practice field.

But Irish coach Charlie Weis hasn’t let anyone off easy.

Although returning players have become more comfortable in Weis’ high-powered offense, the defense is changing as well – adding Travis Thomas as a linebacker and featuring a slimmed-down Chinedum Ndukwe at safety.

Returning players going beyond last year

Although most of the personnel is the same, fall camp had a different feel than last year.

“I think [the players] were more ready for camp,” Weis said. “There are fewer surprises for them. They know what’s going to get me mad.”

“Every one of the guys who was here involved last year is now moved past a stage where the first thing they have to do is learn what to do,” Weis said. “Now they can actually work on doing it better.”

And doing it better without having to think of how to do it.

“If a receiver knows what route to run, now he’s not thinking ‘how do I run this route,’ now he’s thinking about how to run the route, not what route to run,” Weis said. “They’re on a higher level through process.”

Along with increasing the comfort level within the offense, Weis offered practical suggestions to the team.

Last year, he recommended that former-Irish wide receiver Maurice Stovall trim down, and the results were clear. In 2005, Stovall caught 69 passes for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns, capping his season with a selection by Tampa Bay in the third round of April’s NFL Draft.

Ndukwe is hoping for comparable results on the other side of the ball.

With his job in the secondary secure, the free safety lost nearly 20 pounds over the offseason, Weight loss can help with the most basic concerns of a football player-trimming down can mean more speed, more efficiency and more playing time.

Travis Thomas backed up running back Darius Walker in 2005, but is projected to start at weakside linebacker this season.

The position change could be a natural fit for Thomas.

“I definitely like to hit,” he said at Media Day in August. “That is why I play this game. As a running back, you would attempt to avoid contact, but I don’t mind it personally. I just love the game.”

To Weis, Thomas’ defensive background from high school as well as his talent for tackling-as demonstrated on special teams-convinced him that Thomas could see success on both sides of the ball.

Freshmen adjust to college game

Freshman kicker Ryan Burkhart said the challenges in adjusting to college football are anything but basic.

“It’s a growing process,” he said. “It’s a different level than high school.”

But with the graduation of last year’s kicker/punter DJ Fitzpatrick, Burkhart might find himself in the spotlight quickly. He is currently second on the depth chart and is one poor performance away from starting.

“[Playing for Notre Dame] is a dream and you’re just trying to earn the respect of your teammates-just accomplish your goals and try to get some playing time,” he said.

Freshman quarterback Demetrius Jones understands the difference between playing for Notre Dame and his Chicago high school. But some things in football remain the same at all levels.

“I’ve been playing football pretty much all my life so it’s not really that much different … how can I put this – the aroma of the team – everybody wants to get better, everybody wants to work hard,” he said. “And we all share the same common goals.”

Weis has high expectations for his highly touted freshmen, but recognizes that the fine-tuning of college football could take time.

“First of all it comes down to fundamentally and technically sound skills that they have to work on, that they have to show that they’re capable of doing,” Weis said. “Because until they show what they’re capable of doing, we can’t put them on the field.”